Six of Crows

Title: Six of Crows
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

I did not have high hopes for this book–the Nook version was on sale and so I bought it. I like having a stash of books available on my phone for when I inevitably get stuck somewhere with only my phone and want to read. I was very pleasantly surprised, though, because this book is AMAZING.

Basically, this is the tale of criminals in a fantasy land who go on the heist to end all heists. The settings are interesting without being so complicated that I stop caring (see: Lord of the Rings); the plot is tightly woven and fast-paced; and the character development is top notch. I want to personally escort Kaz Brekker–the tough-as-nails mastermind behind the group–to a therapist. There’s some subtle nods to romance, but nothing overbearing. There are mentions of prostitution and slavery, but nothing  graphic. I would be comfortable letting a high school student read this book.

Oftentimes with group adventures like this, I find that there are certain groups of characters that I care a lot more about than others, but I thought all six of our heroes (or anti-heroes) were pretty captivating. Besides Kaz, there’s Inej who for being a mysterious teenage assassin/spy is also a constant source of peace and wisdom. Matthias and Nina are moody and unpredictable former enemies/lovers. Jesper is a good comedic foil who nevertheless has his own struggles and interests, including Wylan, the youngest of the bunch who really comes into his own over the course of the book.

The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the ending–it’s a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel. I need more resolution! But, really, that’s a good thing for the author . . . because now I’m going to buy the sequel (and probably anything else she’s written) just to get that itch scratched 🙂 Happy reading!

The Epiphany Machine

Title: The Epiphany Machine
Author: David Burr Gerrard
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

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Although the description of the titular machine sounds like something out of a science fiction or fantasy novel, this is really a book about humanity’s tolerance for self-awareness. There’s no real exploration of the magic or science behind the epiphany machine–in fact, the question of its origin and authenticity is left open. Certainly, the man who operates it has some control over it, as it eventually tells most New Yorkers that they are “stronger than terrorists” when its reputation wanes post-9-11.

Although the open questions about the machine are still bugging me, the book is absolutely complete (and probably better) without answering them. It follows Venter as a child whose parents used the machine because, as he perceives, they are “lonely, gullible and numb” to a young adult who becomes enamored with it and the knowledge he perceives it gives him. (In case you can’t tell from the cover, the “epiphany machine” is a tattooing device that gives you a personalized revelation on your forearm. The revelations are almost uniformly negative).

But the book doesn’t confine itself to people’s reactions to this tattooing device–instead, its a device that lets Gerrard explore the degree to which people can change (and whether they should) and the relative value of privacy vis a vis safety. I think its easy for authors who want to tackle big questions like that to err on the side of moralizing — of stacking the deck towards the argument they want to win and getting preachy about the conclusion they think you should draw. This book avoids that. Not only am I still pondering the machine’s possible origins, but I’m still not sure who I think is right about whether epiphany tattoos should be reported to the authorities.

What I am sure about is that this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. If you’ve read it and have thoughts on the above, let me know! Happy reading!

The Keeper of Lost Causes

Title: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Author: Jussi Adler-Olsen
Translator: Lisa Hartford
Publisher: Dutton (Penguin Group (USA), Inc.)

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One of the first book series I ever got hooked on was the Nancy Drew books. Since then, I’ve been a sucker for any mystery book. Part of the fun, of course, is trying to figure out how everything goes together before the main character does and who, ultimately, is the bad guy. I’m not the best at guessing–probably for the same reasons I always fall for the unreliable–but I will say that this book kept me guessing until the end.

Even if you are a better detective than I am, I think you’ll still enjoy this book. The main character, Carl, is a unique take on the typical hyper-competent detective. He’s just returned back to work at the police station following a brutal attack that killed one of his partners and maimed another. His struggle to deal with his actions (or lack thereof) during the attack and the resulting fall-out with his colleagues makes for a pretty good sub-plot. There’s also his new assistant, Assad, who has a mysterious past and some innovative research ideas.

I thought Jussi Adler-Olsen did a good job of giving us insight into Carl’s thoughts and motivations without dragging down the plot –the pacing was excellent. Although it was originally written in Danish, the English translation I read flowed really well and it didn’t feel like reading a translation. My only caveat is: if you’re squeamish about violence or don’t like adult themes generally, you probably won’t enjoy this story. But if you want a grown-up mystery that doesn’t lean heavily on a manufactured love interest, I would definitely recommend this book! Happy reading!

 

Fictional Book Club: The Mermaid’s Daughter

Scene: a beautiful, old Chicago apartment. The white walls glow softly in the candlelight. There are two women on a worn, navy couch, another in a paisley armchair, and a fourth pouring white wine. A greyhound is lurking, waiting to make a run for the cheese and crackers on the coffee table.

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Lucy finished pouring the wine. “Ok, girls, the book this week is ‘The Mermaid’s Daughter’ by Ann Claycomb. Who wants to start?”

Silence. Naomi finally piped up, “I thought this was more of a let’s drink and hang out book club and less of a, let’s actually read the book, book club.”

Joanna rolled her eyes. “I called it. She’s the one who wouldn’t be prepared.” Claire and Lucy chuckled. “Okay, Naomi, here’s the quick and dirty version: The Little Mermaid–the creepy traditional one, not the Disney princess–passed a curse on to her daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, etc., all the way to a modern day soprano studying to be an opera singer. She and her girlfriend and her father have to figure out how to stop it.”

Naomi interrupted. “I only know the Disney version–what curse?”

Claire picked up the thread. “So, she traded her voice for human legs, just like in the Disney movie. But it hurts her to walk — like walking on glass or something — and to get her voice, the sea witches actually cut out her tongue. So her daughter has a tongue, but it hurts like her tongue is missing and her feet still hurt. But the mermaid’s sisters feel bad for her so they trade their hair for a knife that can change the mermaid back if she uses it to kill the prince. So then, for the next however many generations, the mermaid’s descendant is given the knife by the witches and told the pain would stop if they killed their lover.”

“Did the sea witches bother anyone else?” Lucy asked. “Like, I know they’re an unreliable narrator but the more I think about it, the less I trust anything they said. Why in the world would the daughter have to kill her lover and not the prince’s descendant? The prince was super terrible and the reason she asked for legs in the first place, so I get why he needs to die but like, what did Harry do?”

“And how do you distinguish between like, your lifelong lover, and, hey this is college and I like you but who knows what we’ll happen when we graduate?” Joanna asked, pouring herself another drink. “God, there are some ex-boyfriends from college I would stab with the knife regardless of any curse!” She laughed, but Naomi–the only one who went to college with her–frowned. She knew exactly who Joanna was talking about and a knife would be too good for them.

“And how do they all have one daughter and that’s it?” Lucy laughed, smearing brie on her cracker. “Nobody had a son, or multiple kids or no kids? Ever?”

“Okay, critics,” Claire interrupted. “Yes, the book about a mermaid and witches isn’t scientific. But c’mon–it’s beautiful. I couldn’t put it down.” She slipped the dog, now begging at her feet, a piece of cheddar.

“Me either,” Lucy admitted, “But don’t feed Parker cheese, it makes him gassy.” Claire gave him an apology kiss on his furry head. “I was surprised, I think, to read a book that could so easily be a dramatic, romantic tragedy that is still pretty grounded – like, listen to this part:

“I know what I can do to try to tell Robin and Harry that I’m going to be okay, that I’ve gotten over myself. I’ll ask if we can go out to dinner. Someplace ridiculous, with a big list of flavored margaritas and food that’s terrible for you, like breaded zucchini and coconut fried shrimp. There’s nothing tragic about going out to dinner at a restaurant like that, and you can’t give up on life and eat something called a zucchini zircle all in the same night.”

Naomi laughed. “Here’s my contribution,” she said, typing on her phone. “I’m finding a recipe for zucchini zircle and that’s what we’ll eat next time. Now, can we talk about the Bachelor?”

Read or Watch? The Magicians

In which I tackle the age-old question: which was better, the book or the movie?

Growing up, I always felt like this was a litmus test: if you had read the book before the movie and if you thought the movie didn’t live up to the book–or even better yet, couldn’t possibly have lived up to the book, then you had “nerd” credit. And if you didn’t, well, football team tryouts were next week. Good luck.

Obviously, I never tried out for football.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’m afraid I’d no longer pass that nerdy purity test with flying colors: sometimes the on-screen version is better than the paperback. And at the risk of alienating all of my bookworm readers, I’m going to start this series with an example of a TV show that I think surpassed the book its based on: The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

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I had originally read The Magicians on my Nook a while ago, but when I was at my local book store recently, I noticed it had an updated cover advertising its TV-counterpart airing on the ScyFy channel. I’m not a fancy cable person, but I found the first season of The Magicians on Hulu and skeptically started the first episode. And then binge watched the entire season. And then had the sickening feeling that I was betraying fellow book-lovers everywhere, because I’m pretty sure I like the on-screen version more than the on-page version.

Here’s why: the point of the book seems to be that life is terrible and hard and purposeless and even when you get what you think you’ve always wanted–magic is real! Fillory exists!–it’s actually terrible and heartless and it won’t fix you because you are inherently broken. Quentin, the main character, is a depressed high school student headed for an Ivy League college when he is granted admission to Brakebills, a prestigious school for magicians. He feels like his life is finally turning around–that maybe this is what he’s been waiting for his whole life–but then it turns out to be the hardest thing he’s ever done and, despite his tenacity in putting in the work, it turns out to essentially be a meaningless pursuit: magic is boring, Fillory is evil, his favs are problematic. Seriously, at least half of this book is a description of how hard and difficult things are even though Quentin is an Ivy League student who is brilliant and gifted. The rest is the author destroying his dreams.

Look, I get it: I’m a sucker for a good training montage and I certainly believe a lot of hard work goes into things that otherwise look like dream professions–but if I wanted to read about someone complaining, I’d go on Facebook.

The TV show, on the other hand, tightens up the plot significantly. While still overusing the term “Ivy League” nevertheless spends way less time on the arduous spiel in favor of more adventures. The characters are drawn into the central conflict earlier in their schooling, so we skip the post-school blues, which, again-I know it’s a real thing — but that doesn’t mean it’s entertaining to read about! The result is that the plot keeps moving, the characters continue to act with purpose and motivation–even when it’s a misdirected purpose or motivation–and the result is a more structured story that I thought was more engaging while still keeping the dark, gritty tone of the book.

Okay, your turn: do I have to turn in my nerd card now? What did you think of the book or the show? Burn me on the stake people!

The Ghosts of Belfast

Title: The Ghosts of Belfast
Author: Stuart Neville
Publisher: Soho Press, Inc.

I first read this book almost two years ago on my honeymoon, curled up in a tiny airport chair (the wedding diet was good not only for the wedding photos but also for fitting into absurd plastic chairs. Airports are the worst). My husband slept most of the way through our six-hour flight, but despite the un-honeymoon-like-subject matter, I couldn’t put this one down.

Quick summary: Gerry Fegan, the protagonist, is a former paramilitary contract killer in Ireland who, after years spent in prison for his crime and as a tentative peace has been formed between the various warring factions, sees dead people. More specifically, his dead victims–the ghosts of the people he murdered. He spends the novel avenging their deaths, while unraveling his own complicated emotions towards his community, former bosses, and new love interest.

Fegan is a man of few words, but the way Neville writes him makes me feel like I’m a fly on a wall in his head. Fegan feels really believable and, even though he though he is undisputedly the bad guy, I really felt emotionally attached to this character all the way to the end. Neville makes you care about what happens to him and Marie and Ellen (the mother/daughter he befriends). I think he accomplishes that by acknowlding Gerry’s flaws, but also showing the circumstances that led him to make the decisions he did and the behaviors that indicate real regret now, and by keeping the ensemble cast manageable. Sometimes authors get so excited about their complicated plot and cast of characters that you feel like you constantly need to check a map or list of characters just to remember who is who. I didn’t have any problem keeping up with this book.

The only criticism I have for this book is the ending. It felt a little cheap, emotionally, and was pretty much the only thing the entire book that “took me out” of the world, i.e., made me feel like the book wasn’t real (the ghosts I had no problems with, so this could be a me problem).

Let me know what you think!! Happy reading!!

 

Severance

Title: Severance
Author: Chris Bucholz
Publisher: Apex Publications, LLC

I am not one for urine jokes (or any bodily function jokes)–but persevere past the protagonists’ prank on the “Markers,” a particular gross clique, in the first chapter of this book and you will be rewarded. I first read Chris Bucholz’s work on Cracked.com, where he churns out underrated and hilarious articles. His best series, by far, are his advice guy articles and his apology letters. They are whimsically and darkly weird and very much elicit either a love or hate reaction. (Obviously, I love.)

This book, however, is not that. Unlike his articles, which strain the bounds of reality on purpose and as part of the joke, you can tell Chris really thought through Severance’s world. It still has enough weird that you know it’s him, and to delight all of the wacky sci-fi fans out there, but it’s tempered with a tightly structured plot and real relationships that make you feel real emotions. And books that can make me feel real emotions are my favorite. (My husband is a little less enthused about walking in on me crying over fictional characters).

I also appreciate that romance is not the primary relationship. Instead, it’s Stein and Bruce’s friendship and, more so, their wavering relationship with the community in which they live and its leaders. There is an old married couple that pretend to be blasĂ© but end up joining the adventure and have an amazing romance, but not in the way you’re expecting. They’re the kind of couple that grew into each other after a long and beautiful life together, and then when push came to shove, they leaned into each and fought against the world with all they had. And they didn’t even really have to talk about it – they just knew. For my Burn Notice people out there, it’s very Michael and Fi. (Basically the highest compliment I can give).

The other thing I think this book gets really right is that nobody is safe. I hate when the good guys are seemingly immortal–there’s no tension if there’s no risk. It’s hard to care about conflict when you know what the outcome will be. Even if the rescue comes at the very end — Star Trek, I’m looking at you — it somehow cheapens the whole adventure. Bucholz, while no George R.R. Martin, does not guard his darlings like that. And the result is a very engaging, enchanting book.

If I had to pick a moral for this story, I would say that it is: people are terrible and dumb but they’re still OK. And they deserve a chance–and you do too. It’s realistic, but reassuring.

Let me know what you think! Happy reading!

Not Quite Narwhal

Title: Not Quite Narwhal
Author: Jessie Sima
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The third time I gave a friend’s child this book this month I declared it to be my favorite book—not my favorite children’s book, but my actual, all-time, best ever, favorite book.

That was probably an exaggeration caused by the intoxicating smell of a fuzzy little newborn head, but not by much.

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It follows the adventures of an unicorn (I know, spoilers! But also, he’s on the cover?) trying to find his place in the world after being raised by narwhals. First, I love that it’s introducing kids to the magical world of narwhals so early. I have had multiple adults tell me that narwhals aren’t real creatures or ask if I just made them up—and not dumb adults, people I normally think of as smart and educated. In case you’re one of those people, here: [link]. They are real and they are awesome. Although, to be fair, drawing them on sparkly pages next to unicorns is maybe not the best way to teach kids to differentiate 🙂

Second, the book is just so pretty. From the cover to the sparkly beach party, it’s just gorgeous to look at and there is so much to capture young eyes! Not, like, newborn young though. It was a gift to his five year old brother. And to an almost three year old relative and to a not-yet born baby.

Finally, I like it because it seems like all of the baby shower invitations I receive now ask guests to bring books instead of cards. (Side note: does anyone else just end up bringing both a book and a card?? Books are great but not convenient for congratulating the mom-to-be!) Nobody wants to bring the same one as anyone else, especially when the 0-5 crowd has such an established canon of classics: Goodnight Moon; Love You Forever; Brown Bear, Brown Bear; Where the Wild Things Are; The Runaway Bunny, etc.

Let me know if you or your kids (or your friends’ kids!) have an opinion on this one! Happy reading!

John Dies At The End

Title: John Dies At The End
Author: David Wong
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

It says book club right in the title, so, like any book club, I think I can assume you’ve read it even if you’re only here for some alcohol & snacks. (My fave? Hard cider + snickerdoodles). I’m going to exercise that prerogative now, so skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested in spoilers: I cannot figure out why the title is “John Dies At The End” when he, basically, is the only one that doesn’t. I suspect that there is some cool, meta reading of the novel that solves this problem for me but I don’t know what it is. I suspect neither David or John would be concerned about it. The two are the most blasĂ© guys I’ve ever met – and yes, I did mean “met.” You can totally meet fictional characters. Let me live.

Anyway, for being an underachieving slacker, David (both the pen name of Jason Pargin, the author, and the name of the protagonist), has a lot of virtues: he’s good with dogs, he takes care of intoxicated friends, he’s respectful to women, and he shows up on time to work most of the time. On the other hand, he makes some dumb mistakes. Which leads me to one of my favorite things about this book: the characters (well, the human ones) feel so real. There aren’t any characters that don’t have any flaws.

This book essentially covers two separate but related stories: the first is John and David’s discovery of “soy sauce,” the monsters that come from it, and trip to Vegas – funny, fast-moving, unpredictable chaos. The second story is the best (at least in my opinion): the monsters re-appear, causing chaos and confusion, and John and David bumble their way towards saving the world (and the girl). If you’re feeling kind of “eh” on the first story, stick around for the second. It’s a fast read, and you won’t regret it.

You’ve probably already realized this, but just as a warning: this book is weird. It probably fits best in the “science fiction” category, but it has some horror flavoring and some of the segues more typical of literary fiction. The opening “riddle” is a good litmus test – if you find it intriguing, you are in for a treat. If you think it’s dumb, this may not be the book for you.

Let me know what you think – happy reading!

Help for the Haunted

Title: Help for the Haunted
Author: John Searles
Publisher: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

This book is not for the faint of heart. Rarely does a book actually creep me out – yet this one did. It follows the life of Sylvie, a young girl whose parents were recently murdered, as she tries to figure out what happened to them, learn how to live with her temperamental older sister Rose, and come to terms with her parents’ unusual and controversial careers.

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My favorite thing about this book was its subtlety – a lot of authors cannot include religious themes without coming across as judgmental and condemning regardless of whether they are pro or con. This book had a more subtle, nuanced approach which made it feel like a part of the story and not just a lecture the author felt morally compelled to include. It was also subtle with the paranormal — in my experience, books that try to flirt with the boundary of fantasy and reality often end up disappointing readers who expect a “Scooby-Doo” ending – aka, for all of the “magic” to be explained — by leaning too fantastical or disappointing readers who like to be surprised or out-witted by the author by leaning too realistic. Here, the ending was satisfying (although, again – CREEPY route to get there).

I am also frequently skeptical when authors use first-person with protagonists substantially different than themselves – here, a male author writing from the perspective of a female child. But Searles does a fantastic job. It felt realistic without being patronizing – there was nothing that felt out-of-character or “jarred” you out of the book’s reality. It’s easy to sympathize and fall in love with Sylvie, to understand her frustration at therapy, her reluctance to really rebel against her sister, and her waves of emotions about her parents. Without spoiling the story, there are two scenes that really hit home for me in capturing Sylvie: when she brings a homemade good-bye gift to Mr. Boshoff, her therapist, that shows how much she has been listening to what he has and hasn’t said about his own life, and when she offers candy to malicious trick-or-treaters who had only showed up to tease her about her (dead) parents.

If you want a happy story about sisterhood conquering all, this is not the book for you. But if you want an intriguing coming-of-age story, light some candles and dive right in! Happy reading!